To our readers: Thank you for taking part in our Mailbag Monday this week. Star Tribune beat writers received many questions about the teams and leagues we cover, and each writer selected at least two questions to answer on his or her blog.
Q: What are realistic best and worst case scenarios for hoops next year without Daniel Oturu? – Alan State (@astage)
A: It’s hard to predict at all the ceiling for the Gophers men’s basketball team without Oturu. Richard Pitino will definitely fill his center spot with someone not on the current roster and not committed. They certainly have players capable of helping in the frontcourt next season, especially if junior Eric Curry returns fully healthy in the fall. Sophomore Jarvis Omersa and freshman Sam Freeman have Big Ten bodies but how much will their games develop this summer? If one of them makes a big jump that would be an X-factor. The development of freshman Isaiah Ihnen into an impact stretch power forward is one of the more interesting offseason storylines. But adding experience and talent in the transfer market to replace Oturu and senior Alihan Demir in the starting frontcourt will make or break the postseason hopes next year. Hitting on a big-time transfer would put the Gophers right in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten. They are after several graduate transfers, including 7-foot-3 Loyola Marymount center Mattias Markusson and the nation's leading rebounder Kevin Marfo from Quinnipiac. Filling Oturu's spot with a high-production post player puts them back into the NCAA tournament. Worst case without Oturu and adequate big man replacements would be finishing 12th or worst in the Big Ten with no postseason berth. Would Pitino survive that? Oturu declared for the NBA draft officially Monday. So, Gophers fans can only dream what returning four starters (also Marcus Carr, Gabe Kalscheur and Payton Willis in the backcourt) would’ve been like. They'd probably flirt with making the top 25 rankings.
Q: How much help can Gophers recruits Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Martice Mitchell be realistically expected to provide next season? – @t220prop
A: Mashburn is expecting to be an immediate contributor as the backup point guard behind Carr. He’s not the facilitator that Carr is. But the four-star Brewster Academy senior can share the load as another ball handler, a weakness for the Gophers this season. Mashburn could challenge Kalscheur and Willis for the honor of best three-point shooter on the team. Mitchell’s length and athleticism at 6-10 might get him a quick look early in the season. His slight build will make it hard to see much time in the Big Ten. But his perimeter skills at that size give him maybe more potential than anyone outside of Ihnen. A redshirt year would be ideal for the Chicago Heights product. But Gophers coaches really can't wait to get Mitchell on campus to see what hard work in the weight room will do.
Q: I just recently came across a social media post from Eric Curry and [former Gophers wide receiver Tyler Johnson]. Is it realistic to believe Curry could be rejoining the roster next season after his injury history? That would be awesome! – Tom Anderson (@andersonTJ5)
A: Totally agree. That would be awesome to see Curry healthy. As a beat writer, I have to be objective with how I cover the Gophers, but it was hard not to root for Curry in his recent recovery. He’s had so many setbacks. This was a guy who as a freshman you could argue he had as much or more impact on many of the big Gophers’ wins as any of the starters. Curry’s contributions were typically not from scoring a ton of points or dominating the glass, but he made timely plays offensively and defensively. That helped the Gophers get to the NCAA tournament for the first time under Pitino in 2017. That’s what this team is missing: a glue guy. To answer your question, yes. It’s realistic that Curry will play next season, because his latest knee injury wasn’t as severe as two years ago. The 6-foot-9 redshirt junior should be cleared for full contact by this summer. Curry, though, will take it slow to be ready for the 2020-21 season opener.
Question for Gophers women’s basketball beat writer Kent Youngblood
Q: Did we ever get the real story about Destiny Pitts? Why was she suspended and why did she transfer? I don’t want to hear conduct detrimental to the team. What happened? – Nate Dogg (@Doggwilly)
A: Both Destiny Pitts and Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen have remained mainly mum about what happened this year. But I think it's safe to say that the way Pitts acted at the end of the Gophers' two-point loss to Northwestern game was not the only incident that caused the suspension.
To recap: Pitts was benched for much of the fourth quarter in that two-point loss to Northwestern. Down 10 with 7:05 left, the Gophers rallied to tie the game on a three-pointer by Jasmine Brunson with 4 seconds left only to have the Wildcats win it at the buzzer.
During much of that rally Pitts remained, alone, sitting on the bench as the rest of the reserves cheered the team off.
Pitts was suspended for the Gophers game at lowly Illinois, another one-possession loss played without Pitts and the Bello sisters, who stayed home in support of Pitts.
Pitts ultimately decided to leave. The Bellos returned, but the Gophers subsequently lost by a point to Iowa in the season's turning point that saw Minnesota lose to three teams by a possession to three straight teams, two that ended up the season at or near the top of the Big Ten Conference.
Pitts – as well as Kehinde and Taiye Bello – were players Whalen inherited when she took over the team prior to the 2018-19 season. I suspect Pitts and Whalen had likely disagreed on things in the past. I suspect blame for the deteriorating relationship should be shared between the player and a coach going through a situation like this for the first time.